Louisiana Lawmakers Vote to Make Abortion Pills Controlled Substances

Louisiana Lawmakers Vote to Make Abortion Pills Controlled Substances

Louisiana lawmakers passed legislation on Thursday to make the state the first in the nation to designate abortion pills as dangerous controlled substances. Possession of the drugs without a prescription would be a crime punishable with jail time and thousands of dollars in fines.

The legislation, which passed the State Senate by a vote of 29 to 7, now goes to Gov. Jeff Landry, a Republican who previously defended the state’s stringent abortion ban in court as attorney general. He is widely expected to sign it.

By classifying the abortion pills mifepristone and misoprostol as Schedule IV drugs — a category of medicines with some potential for abuse or dependence that includes Ambien, Valium and Xanax, among others — lawmakers in the state say they aim to curb the illicit distribution of the drugs for abortions. But the Food and Drug Administration does not consider the two medications to have potential for abuse or dependence, and years of research have overwhelmingly shown both pills to be safe.

Because Louisiana already bans most abortions, and because the two drugs are also prescribed for other uses — both can be used during miscarriages, and misoprostol is often used to prevent ulcers and help during childbirth — hundreds of doctors in the state strenuously opposed the legislation.

“I understand that it may give some in this body some heartburn,” State Senator Thomas Pressly, who championed the bill, said to other lawmakers on Thursday. “But I truly believe this is the right step for making sure that the criminal action on the front end is stopped.”

Doctors and other medical professionals warned lawmakers that the bill would send the false message that the drugs are dangerous, and that it could cause delays in treatment for patients with medical needs not related to abortion.

“What it’s going to do is make it harder to use these drugs safely and legally,” said Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the director of the New Orleans Health Department, who helped organize a letter opposing the measure. “It’s going to create confusion, fear, barriers to using these drugs for all of their non-abortion indications,” she added.

Republicans and the powerful anti-abortion group Louisiana Right to Life have disputed those concerns and accused abortion rights groups of fomenting unnecessary fear. As with most abortion restrictions and bans, pregnant women would be exempt from the criminal penalties imposed by the bill, which can include thousands of dollars in fines and up to five years in jail.

Liz Murrill, the state attorney general, wrote on social media: “This legislation does NOT prohibit these drugs from being prescribed and dispensed in Louisiana for legal and legitimate reasons.”

Dr. Avegno, who is an emergency medicine physician, and other doctors said that classifying drugs under Schedule IV imposes certain logistical hurdles, like extra steps for calling prescriptions into pharmacies and possibly needing paper prescriptions.

Michelle Erenberg, executive director of Lift Louisiana, a reproductive rights organization, said that especially in cases of bleeding in miscarriage, “things can change for the worse very quickly,” and doctors are concerned that they may not be able to “quickly call in a prescription for these medications the way that they currently are able to do.”

Opponents of abortion have argued that abortion pills are unsafe, making that claim in a lawsuit currently before the U.S. Supreme Court that seeks to curtail access to mifepristone, the first pill in the two-drug medication abortion regimen that now accounts for nearly two-thirds of abortions in the United States.

But scores of studies have found that serious complications are very rare, with less than 1 percent of patients needing hospitalization after taking abortion pills. Earlier this year, a journal retracted two studies by anti-abortion authors that suggested that abortion pills were unsafe.

Louisiana, a deeply conservative state where some Democrats have repeatedly joined Republicans in backing anti-abortion laws, has been at the forefront of limiting abortion rights after the Supreme Court’s decision to undo Roe v. Wade. Most abortions are banned in the state, with the exception of certain instances in which a woman’s life or health are in danger or a fetus has one of several fatal conditions.

The state’s abortion laws have led to confusion, most notably in 2022 when a woman was denied an abortion because her fetus’s fatal condition was not clearly listed as a medical exception, and doctors were afraid to run afoul of the laws.

Many patients who live in Louisiana or other states with bans have traveled to obtain abortions in states where abortion remains legal, or have received prescriptions and pills from doctors and nurses in other states under shield laws. Those ways of obtaining abortions are unlikely to be affected by the new bill.

David S. Cohen, a law professor at Drexel University, said a relatively small number of people might be subject to penalties under the bill, including members of informal networks of volunteers who provide nonprescription pills to some communities and women who are not pregnant but who order abortion pills just in case.

“It may make some people think twice, and it may expose some people to criminal prosecution who right now are not exposed,” he said. But, he added, “this is not going to stop people in Louisiana from getting and using abortion pills.”

Mr. Pressly, a Shreveport Republican, said he sponsored the bill after his sister, Catherine Pressly Herring, discovered that her husband had drugged the water she was drinking with misoprostol in an illicit effort to end her pregnancy. (He pleaded guilty to two criminal charges. The pregnancy continued and the child was born prematurely.)

“No one should have abortion pills weaponized against them,” Ms. Pressly Herring told Louisiana lawmakers in early April. Seated next to her brother as she testified about her experience, she added, “As someone who has unknowingly and unwillingly ingested chemical abortion pills, I stand before you today to ask for your protection against this weapon.”

Mr. Pressly initially focused his legislation on making coerced criminal abortion a crime, a measure that did not stir objections from many abortion rights supporters. But late last month, he added the proposal to criminalize the use of the two abortion medications without a prescription, which drew criticism from across the country.

“What we’re simply doing is stating that we should be protecting women like my sister from harmful bad actors that are trying to kill their unborn child or an unborn child and harm a woman,” Mr. Pressly told lawmakers during debate on Thursday.

“I want to be very clear: These are prescribed medications today, they will continue to be able to be prescribed medications moving forward,” Mr. Pressly added.

State Democrats condemned the attempt to poison Mr. Pressly’s sister and signaled support for the underlying bill. But they focused their opposition on the amendment targeting the two pills, questioning whether there had been enough time to consider the change and whether it would lead to a delay in issuing necessary prescriptions.

“We’re using politics to decide how to govern care for women, and that should not be the case,” said State Senator Royce Duplessis, a Baton Rouge Democrat.

Nationally, Democrats, who have seen abortion and reproductive rights become a potent political issue across the country, have seized on the amendment as evidence of conservative overreach. After the Louisiana House of Representatives voted to pass the abortion pill measure on Tuesday, President Biden’s re-election campaign this week sought to tie the legislation to former President Donald J. Trump, accusing him of “enabling this cruel legislation that would jeopardize women’s health.”

Ms. Erenberg said abortion rights groups would explore a possible legal challenge to the bill. “I definitely have concerns about this being replicated in other states,” she said.

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